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A CurtainUp Review
Stopping Traffic

People have been telling me to shut up since I was four ---Mary Pat Gleason, who continues NOT to shut up in Stopping Traffic.

Mary Pat Gleason
(Photo: Carol Rosegg )
An effusive, original, and genial character actress, Mary Pat Gleason, like so many fine performers, nevertheless came close to abandoning her career. Her reason, however, was not so much the typical lack of jobs, for after a reasonable time, she conquered that particular hazard rather successfully. For her, a behavioral challenge identified as bipolar disorder was the central challenge, sometimes even devastating in its impact as an often unspoken-about variety of mental illness. Her courageous and sometimes even torturous experiences might have become a book, but her choice instead has been to turn to the medium in which many actors find most satisfaction, that of live performance. The result is Stopping Traffic, an inspirational yet problematic onstage memoir.

Telling one’s own life on stage presents its own hazards. One hazard, of course, involves the emotional baggage involved when an actor must relive her most harrowing personal moments night after night. For a performer there is a conundrum in the added challenge of keeping a performance fresh when its very freshness could so expose one’s carefully treated wounds to new dangers. In a sense, such a challenge was stock-in-trade of the late and appropriately much celebrated memoir monologist Spalding Gray, whose image is eerily recalled when the audience finds the Vineyard stage adorned with no more than a nondescript desk and chair.

Ms. Gleason’s performance, while unquestionably engaging, seems to be, especially in the opening minutes, calibrated at a comfortable distance from her own especially harrowing past, unfortunately yielding for the audience an unintended synthetic quality along with an intended and appropriate measure of empathy. Many of her best moments are when humor or irony is being showcased. In fact, the production has been described in press materials as her "comic odyssey." At other moments, however, the performance viewed seemed to be on auto-pilot. Her occasional delusional "episodes" no doubt are difficult for her to revisit, and for her audience at times they are both difficult and educationally revealing.

Lonny Price’s inventive direction imbues the piece with considerably tonal and visual variety, with especially notable help from the lighting and sound departments in his design team.

To be fair, there is an enormous amount of humor and arresting drama in this monodrama. But one cannot help wonder if it would become more successful either fictionalized or performed by an actress other than the subject of the events. This is not in the least to suggest that Ms. Gleason is not a satisfying performer; her anecdotes often are riveting and/or touching, and no doubt many in the audience, myself included, will be looking for copies of the films she anecdotally revisits as she describes her location work for Lorenzo’s Oil as a librarian and in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as an allegedly mad witch. These screen performances, the most visible products of her performing career, obviously allow her the usual mask of character not available onstage in Stopping Traffic.

Note: This evaluation of the Vineyard’s current offering may be partly influenced by a persistent public resistance to the topic of mental illness, and at the performance I attended, the edge from that factor may have been significantly augmented by a delay owing to an alarming fall from the seating area by a fragile audience member, putting both performer and audience at an unusual disadvantage. Writing this review, I realize that my perception (and perhaps Ms. Gleason’s as well) may have been colored by that unfortunate pre-show incident.

Playwright and Performer: Mary Pat Gleason
Directed by Lonny Price
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Tracy Christensen
Lighting Design: David Weiner
Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves
Running time: 85 minutes (no intermission)
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street)212-353-0303
From 5/24/06 to 6/25/06-- extended to 7/02/06; opening 6/07/06.
Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 5pm.

Tickets: $50
Reviewed by Brad Bradley based on June 4th performance

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